1. Baroque Band with Iestyn Davies and Harry Bicket
Symphony Center, Grainger Ballroom
Chicago audiences were treated to a heavy dose of British countertenor Iestyn Davies last spring. The former indie-rocker pulled off a thrilling Lyric debut as Eustazio in Handel’s Rinaldo, almost stealing the show from legendary countertenor David Daniels. Yet it was the 32-year-old’s intimate concert of Handel arias that really proved Davies to be among the world’s leading male altos. While the Yorkshire native’s pipes are perfectly suited to the demands of opera, his flawless singing and astoundingly pure timbre was given full space to shine in Symphony Center’s ritzy ballroom.
2. Spektral Quartet
This has been a massive year for the Spektral chaps. Not only has the foursome provided some of the most consistently inventive programming around town (especially its regular “Sampler Pack” programs at the Empty Bottle), but the group also scooped the coveted title of ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago. Spektral’s May performance of “Theatre of War”—a profound multimedia meditation on the effects of war in the U.S. and abroad—included a spine-tingling interpretation of George Crumb’s amplified string quartet Black Angels that was hands down one of the most impressive performances of the year.
3. Tim Munro and Jennifer Gunn
Roosevelt University, Ganz Hall
Eighth blackbird flutist Munro and CSO piccoloist Gunn took their instruments to dizzying heights in February, making them sing, speak, howl, growl, grunt and chirp Brett Dean’s sinister Demons and the world premiere of Ben Broening’s Trembling Air. The pair eschewed prettiness for full-on badassery, defying convention in a snarling storm of a program.
4. Beethoven Festival
National Pastime Theater
George Lepauw does it again. After the success of last year’s debut festival in Pilsen, the local pianist and founder of the International Beethoven Project hustled to fulfill an even bigger, bolder vision. Held at Uptown’s charmingly shabby National Pastime Theater, the festival packed 60 multidisciplinary events into nine days in September and included premiere Chicago appearances by HJ Lim and James Rhodes. Lepauw is a whirlwind force at the center of Chicago’s classical scene and is helping to change the city’s cultural landscape with his fests.
5. Loops and Variations: Ensemble Dal Niente with Deerhoof
Millennium Park, Pritzker Pavilion
Punk rock met contemporary classical in June at this excellent (and free!) new-music series. Local composer Marcos Balter penned a fun new orchestral arrangement of Deerhoof’s “Eaguru Guru,” which was given a heartfelt world premiere by Dal Niente. The ensemble turned out to the be perfect opening act for a blistering, delightfully cacophonous set by Deerhoof, proving once and for all that rock and classical don’t have to be confined to separate stages.
6. Grant Park Music Festival: Frozen Planet in Concert
Millennium Park, Pritzker Pavilion
Seals! Belugas! Bison! The BBC’s Frozen Planet documentary gives the ultimate lowdown on the Earth’s polar regions. This summer, the Grant Park Orchestra, led by Brit conductor and Planet Earth composer George Fenton, treated die-hard fans to a live soundtrack of polar bear cubs skidding across glaciers and “criminal” Adélie penguins nicking stones from their neighbors’ nests.
7. Evgeny Kissin
Symphony Center, Orchestra Hall
The 41-year-old Russian pianist’s technical wizardry and brilliant intensity is less flashy than in his wunderkind days, showing greater maturity and musical depth. In April, Kissin put the piano through its paces with Chopin and Barber, while his rich interpretation of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata managed to make even that classical staple sound fresh.